It’s been a long week. And, during quieter times (of which there have been many), I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why.
Thomas George was a terrific person. But it’s not like I was a close friend, or a fellow performer. I was, at best, a fan who happened to get to know him a little. Yet his death hit me in a way that very few people’s deaths ever have.
After the events of the day yesterday – the funeral, the reception afterwards, and the celebration last night – I hadn’t quite found the answer. But somewhere in a fitful night of sleep, it came to me, finally.
Actually, the revelation started a bit earlier. Improv troupes always start their show nights with a warmup game or two backstage to get their creativity going and to make sure everyone’s connected. In that tradition, the first game of the celebration at CSz last night was a warmup game, to which everyone in the room was invited. It’s a silly game, called “Big Booty” – I’d explain it, but it’s not the point. When the circle formed, I stayed out of the way, as I usually do.
One of the two people leading the game saw that, and called me out for it. It was what Christine Walters said that finally got into my head… “we know deep in his heart, Rob wants to play”.
On one level, she was right. On another, she couldn’t have been more wrong.
I couldn’t play. I would have liked to, but as soon as I considered the idea, my body froze – almost literally. I couldn’t move toward the circle. Not wouldn’t, couldn’t.
That moment must have percolated in the back of my mind, because somewhere between “tossing and turning” and “staring at the ceiling”, it made sense, finally – both why I enjoy being around the improv community and why I’ll never fully be part of it (and, probably, why things went so badly wrong 7 years ago).
It comes down to a sense of self – and how improvisers put it aside to perform, and how I am unable to do that.
To be successful at improv, I think, you have to be able to “take yourself off” for a few minutes and just be part of the team. You can’t stop to worry about whether what’s happening on stage is something you’d really do, or if it even makes sense. You just have to go with the flow.
That sense of panic I felt last night? That moment where I froze? That was my very strong sense of self getting in my way. I am simply, as far as I can tell, unable to let go of my own identity long enough to be part of a team game like that.
And that goes to the code improvisers live by – “it’s OK to fail”.
In my world, it’s not OK to fail. Failure is to be avoided at all costs.
I don’t retain my successes. I can’t let go of my failures.
The only clear memory I have of elementary school was my biggest failure. The only clear memory I have of junior high school was my biggest failure (they’re related, as both were valedictory speeches at graduation ceremonies).
I can’t fail. I do fail, but I am unable to intentionally put myself in a position to fail.
I can’t allow myself to fail because my failures would attach to my sense of self. My sense of self is too strong to allow me to let go.
And that’s why I couldn’t join the circle last night. I might have failed.
It’s why, I think, I’m not good at friendships. It’s why, I’m sure, why I’ve never had a successful relationship.
What’s really difficult, for me, is that I kind of fight with myself all the time, but never really recognized it for what it was – I let opportunities pass (some might call it risk aversion), then wonder why. I think I finally figured it out. I can’t get out of my own way – I can’t risk failure, so I don’t risk success. I have to be pushed against the wall to take a risk – a pattern you can see elsewhere in my life as well.
And this, in the end, is why I hover near the improv community. This is, in the end, why losing Thomas was so painful.
Thomas was, in every way, the not-me. There was no risk too great for him to try. Everyone was worth opening up for. He let his ego go with a ferocity that I know I could never do. He was, to me, the funhouse mirror version of me. If I couldn’t get out of my own way, I could live that experience vicarously through Thomas (and the rest of Richmond’s improvisers).
Losing Thomas was losing that visible, tangible expression of everything I know I will never know how to be.
And that tore me up.
Does the fact that I can put words to all of this mean that now I can jump up on stage, or take other risks? Hell no. While knowledge is power, it’s taken me 50 years to build up this wall. It’s not coming down anytime soon, I can feel that even as I type this. I am fighting, very hard, against that “sense of self” that is trying to get me to delete this because publishing it is an admission of failure.
If you see this, it’s a small step. But it doesn’t mean I’m signing up for Improv 101 tomorrow.
It does mean that at least I know why I’ll be sprinting from the Main Line studios (where I’m producing VCU basketball today) to Gallery5 (where the Richmond Comedy Coalition will be performing) tonight.
I’m chasing myself. I just don’t know if I’ll ever really catch myself.
If I can’t do that, at least I can see what it might have been like… every time I attend an improv show.
And that’s why I’ve been crying for Thomas all week.
And as I read it over, I know it sounds a bit absurd. But it’s who I am. And it was time to say so.
Something I’ve been saying for a couple of days is that it’s a shame it seems to have taken losing Thomas for Richmond’s improv community to start to come together. But perhaps they’re up against what I’m up against.
Clarity can only come, I guess, with a large enough shock to the system.